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Capital Punishment and Kantian Normative Theory


Capital punishments attract immense controversies. Human rights advocates claim that a death penalty violates human rights, especially considering that the crimes for which death penalty is applied involve multi-killings. The issue here is whether an act of killing one person, the offender, can measure up to the lives lost because of the acts of the wrongdoer. Nations, which still practice capital punishment, hold that death penalties are essential in helping to prevent or reduce homicide crimes.

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While this position receives scholarly support such as Radelet and Lacock (489) and Manski and Pepper (123), an important question is whether it is ethically and morally justified to execute one person for the benefit of manipulating the conducts of other people in the society. This paper deploys a deontological school of thought, theory of Kantianism to respond to this interrogative. The paper assumes the Kantian approach to capital punishment to show that the strategy is the only punishment that fits the crime.

Summary of Kantianism

Several theories explain the manner in which people react when they encounter certain situations. These theories fall into normative and descriptive approaches (Forschler Kantian and Consequentialist Ethics 88). In the perspectives of normative approaches, ethical concepts define various values and principles, which guide people’s decisions and behaviors. Descriptive approaches consider ethics as constituting the permissible individual and societal behaviors. Kantianism constitutes one of the deontological normative theories that shed light on what should be considered a right accomplishment or a wrong action.

Kantianism refers to the philosophical school of thought developed by Emanuel Kant. According to Kant, any rationale should not be exposed to rebellion (Forschler Kantian and Consequentialist Ethics 88). Kant believes that this problem can be resolved only by subjecting the power of reason to criticism in the endeavor to establish its limits clearly. This thesis constitutes the main objective of Kant’s book Critique of Pure Reason.

Kant argues that critique of reason creates room for the possibility of establishing a distinction between legitimate deployment of reason in philosophy and rhetoric coupled with dialectical use (Forschler Willing Universal Law 142). Hence, the foundation of rationality in science and the room for religion coupled with morality are also left. The main interest of this paper is in the morality and ethicalness of actions such as capital punishments as a well-reasoned necessary cause of action. Therefore, I restrict my discussion to Kant’s arguments on the morality that may apply to capital punishment.

Kantian deontology is guided by duty, as opposed to desired end goals and/ or emotions. Therefore, in the discussion of its applicability in capital punishments, no emotion should be aroused due to the manner in which a person is executed. Rather, an important question is ‘should capital crime offenders be punished through capital punishments?’ According to Kant, all actions are done within some parameters that support the action (Forschler Willing Universal Law 142).

He termed this issue as maxim. From the basis of maxim, it becomes possible to judge any moral worthiness of an action. Kant developed his reasoning of any action as constituting the evaluation of rationality of the action, the best action being the one that delivers utmost good. Kant asserts that people are rational in a fundamental way. The awareness underlines the criterion deployed in the evaluation of the appropriateness of any maxims developed through rationality.

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Categorical imperative leads to the experimentation of people’s thoughts. Categorical imperative entails attempts “to universalize the maxim (by imagining a world where all people necessarily act in this way in the relevant circumstances) and then see if the maxim and its associated action will still be conceivable in such a world” (Forschler Willing Universal Law 145). For example, taking the principle that one should kill every annoying person and applying it universally raises the chances where all people will be killed, thus leading that to a situation where one would not have anyone to kill since all people will have been killed. Hence, such a principle is both irrational and impossible to sustain.

Kant believed that universalizing a principle had two possible implications, namely, inconsistency-in-will and outset incongruity. Contraction–in-will means a situation where people will challenge the implications of universalizing maxims. The second contraction denotes the situation in which a maxim is an invalid way of achieving an end. The first case of contradiction results in perfect duty while the second case suggests a defective duty.

Kant’s deontology focuses on maxims that underline a given action where the judgment of the action is done based on whether it amounts to the best thing to do or to a bad thing. The main criterion for accomplishing this end is conformity of the judgment to reason.

Kant admits that most of people’s common sense with respect to what is bad or good matches his value systems. However, he is quick to note that actions executed for any other reason, apart from being rational, are not good actions (Potter 269). For example, it is not necessary to salvage a drowning individual because of sympathy or pity, as this action is not morally right. He denies the assertion that the repercussions of any act contribute to a moral justification of an act. Based on these basic tenets of Kant deontology, the next section suggests that capital punishments are appropriate for capital offenders.

Application of Kantianism to Capital Punishments

Kant advocated for capital punishment for offenses such as murder. This position attracts controversies from different scholars, including Gudorf (99) who support the theory while others such as Gius (199) opposed it. The theory attracts debate across the world, especially with the increasing threat of hardcore criminals who engage in serial killings. Instead of capital punishment for such offenders, those in position of capital castigation would propose holding the criminal in Supermax prisons.

Nevertheless, some human rights activists argue that Supermax prisons violate basic human rights. Besides lacking human contact, they are deficient of intellectual stimulation. The prisons have negative consequences on the confined inmates. In this context, any argument against some forms of punishments, including capital retribution, is based on the consequences of the justice, which Kant cautions should not be a determining factor for the appropriateness of the action (Forschler Kantian and Consequentialist Ethics 87).

The above opinions may be justified when viewed from the lens of the proclamation of human rights as provided for in the US constitution and the international law. However, a question emerges whether the lives of the inmates held at Supermax prisons or those who are executed are more superior when compared to the harmless multiple lives claimed by the inmates, individually or in collaboration with others.

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To this extent, the argument about the human rights activists is unjustified to the extent that all people have equal rights and that one’s rights ends where the other person’s civil liberties begin. From Kant’s deontology, the execution of such people is the best punishment (Forschler Kantian and Consequentialist Ethics 89).

Justice is delivered to match the threshold of the offense committed. For example, a terrorist who bombs 100 people to death while he or she narrowly escapes death can only be an aggravated source of national and international security when an intermediate sanction is deployed to punish him or her. Such a person needs not to be in contact with other people who he or she can potentially harm or people who he or she can conspire to commit another deadly crime.

To eliminate such a threat in totality, it is better to act without emotions by extending capital punishment. However, an important question is whether this action is the right thing to do. A response to this question requires the examination of the justification of capital punishments from Kant’s deontology as Rachels and Rachels reveal (3).

Death penalty helps in deterring the rates of murder in the US. Hence, when capital punishment is given to offenders who deserve it, more people fear committing crimes that can attract similar punishments. However, sentencing an individual to death penalty for the benefit of other people with the hope that they will not engage in crime that attract capital punishment is not right from Kant’s deontology. In addition, human rights activists’ arguments against capital punishments based on the claim that the action violates human rights are founded on consequence, which is not a rational basis for not doing the act.

Death Penalty Focus reckons that jurists fail to deliver capital punishment judgment to women compared to men due to emotional responses towards the women capital offenders (par.5). Kant warns against acting in a manner that is dictated by emotions, as opposed to rational justification for an action. From this context, delivering lesser punishments for crimes that require capital punishment is morally wrong. Is the act itself (capital punishment) right?

Normative theory of Kant leads to two important ideas that justify the need for capital punishment. One person should not be punished as a means to submissive purposes for any other person. Hence, one should not be punished as a way of manipulating the conducts of another person. Rather, such a person should have given consent to such punishment. In the same capacity that one should not make another person a slave, but can enter into an agreement to work for wages or salary, it is inappropriate to prescribe capital punishment to a person who consents to it by way of acting in a manner that prompts the jurist to extend such sentence.

The second important idea is that justice should guarantee equality. For example, if one kills another person, the best justice is the one, which brings the killer to an equal position relative to the person who was killed.

Kant’s basic moral rule is that people should act in accordance with the principle that the best action should be one that becomes a universal law. This claim implies the principle that permits one to demonstrate a given behavior. Consequently, one should act in a manner that he or she permits other people to do. For example, killing somebody permits other people to kill the murderer. Hence, if one robs other people, then he or she gives all other people the authority to rob him or her. However, only the guilty people deserve being punished in accordance with the universal law that one has developed.

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The punishment should be one, which enables an individual to develop awareness of the degree of his or her deeds. This case underlines the need for developing creative punishments. For example, in case of insult from a powerful person, imposing a fine may not be an adequate penalty to make the person realize the badness of his or her deeds. Rather, he or she should experience humiliation in the public domain. Similarly, in murder cases, the criminal should suffer similar fate since no other humiliation can measure up to the degree of his or her deeds, apart from capital punishment. Therefore, the penalty is the justified retribution.

Kant directly supported the need for capital punishments. He argued that even if the entire civil society was dissolved after people consented, the very last murderer in a prison needed to be executed. This statement may be interpreted as extremism in matters of support for capital punishment. Secondly, it may be interpreted as supporting the doctrine of retributivism, which has been considered the rationale for justifying death penalties (Potter 267).

Kant lived in a time when capital punishment was an acceptable form of punishment for different types of crimes, especially in Europe. However, he argued in its support for crime that involved murder. Therefore, he did not assert that other crimes should be punished using death penalty. Similarly, this paper argues that capital punishment measures up to the crimes of killing other people. By the actual act of killing, one invites other people to kill the assassin. Therefore, by killing, the murderer has already invited other people to kill him or her. Through capital punishment, one is brought to equality with the murder crime that he or she commits. Otherwise, failing to give a death penalty to somebody who has already invited other people to do it by the act of killing another person is injustice to the murderer.

The above position attracts mixed views, especially in the cotemporary world. For example, capital punishment may not be an appropriate punishment for serial murderers such as terrorists who kill hundreds of people. The point of argument here is that Kant advocates doing actions that match what one person does to another. Therefore, a serial killer’s life may not be equivalent to that of several people he or she has killed.

From the premise of creative punishment, an appropriate punishment should be passed to the serial killer for him or her to suffer equal humiliation. Should he or she be confined to Supermax or be executed? From Kant’s deontology, the number of people that one has murdered does not matter. What matters is the act of killing, which the murderer invites other people to do as a universally acceptable act. Therefore, capital punishment is the justified punishment for serial killers, including terrorists.


Today, many nations have abolished capital punishments. In the US, those who have committed the worst crimes are convicted to life imprisonment at Supermax prisons. However, from Kant’s deontology, those who convict murderers to life imprisonment fail to deliver justice to those who have acknowledged capital punishment as the most justified punishment. Therefore, any punishment given to a murderer that does not include the death penalty is not equal to the magnitude of the crime committed. Failing to execute murderers suggests collaboration between the offender and the person who delivers justice in violation with Kant’s understanding of justice.

Works Cited

Death Penalty Focus. Arbitrariness in the Application of the Death Penalty, 2009. Web.

Forschler, Scott. “Kantian and Consequentialist Ethics: The Gap Can Be Bridged.” Meta-Philosophy 44.2 (2013): 88-104. Print.

Forschler, Scott. “Willing Universal Law vs. Universally Lawful Willing: What Kant’s Supreme Principle of Morality Should Have Been.” Southwest Philosophy Review 26.3 (2010):141–152. Print.

Gius, Mark. “The Impact of the Death Penalty and Executions on State-Level Murder Rates 1980-2011.” Applied Economics Letters 23.3 (2016): 199-201. Print.

Gudorf, Christine. “Christianity and Opposition to the Death Penalty: Late Modern shifts.” A Journal of Theology 52.2(2013): 99-109. Print.

Manski, Charles, and John Pepper. “Deterrence and the death penalty: partial identification analysis using repeated cross sections.” Journal of Quantitative Criminology 29.1(2013): 123-141. Print.

Potter, Nelson. “Kant and Capital Punishment Today.” The Journal of Value Inquiry 36.2 (2002):267–282. Print.

Rachels, James, and Stuart Rachels. The Right Thing to Do Basic Readings in Moral Philosophy, New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2006. Print.

Radelet, Michael, and Traci Lacock. “Do Executions Lower Homicide Rates: The Views Of Leading Criminologists?” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 99.4 (2009): 489-507. Print.

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